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NOTICE: The Charter Vision project is dormant as of January 2008. This website is provided for archival purposes only.

How to Build a Successful Democratic School

Unknown School) Originally published May 2004

A growing trend in charter schools is to promote independent and group-based learning that caters to the student’s needs, rather than following a standardized curriculum. This trend has had mixed results, but for the most part it has been found that this mode of learning is not only a particular favorite to students, but it also has had marked effects in the retainment of knowledge acquired over the course of the student’s educational career. As a result, more and more schools are converting to this format, oftentimes following very idealistic philosophies.

However, as such schools have begun to realize, the state and federal governments across the nation have designed their regulations to work with standardized curriculums, and thus are required to meet certain specifications that in truth do more than good. It often limits how much individual attention the school can provide to students, and this often crushes the initial idealistic motives with which the schools start.

To counteract this, schools that choose this program must be capable of taking laws and bending them or working around them in ways that can minimize the negative impact they have on the school. Although there is always a risk associated with rule-bending, it must be recognized by the school that these laws are hurtful to the program and that without a workaround, they will be unable to sustain such a program.

Perhaps I should clarify by expressing what I mean by a “hurtful” law. There was a law recently passed in Minnesota that required all high school students to meet a certain list of educational standards in order to graduate from the program. These lists, though made with the best of intentions, were too specific for schools to work with and cater to the student’s individual needs as an independent learning.

However, even a law such as this could easily be molded to suit a student’s needs, provided that you look at it in one of two ways:

  1. as a guideline more than a requirement, in that not all sections are required to achieve the “standard” so long as there is proof that the student has proficiency in that area; or
  2. that the requirements stipulated in each standard do not specify any requirement on how much a student must write, create, or demonstrate in order to fulfill that particular requirement (in other words, minimizing the work to a bare minimum for areas that would be considered “hurtful”).

This is only one example of how a law could be manipulated to work in this school program.

Beyond laws and paperwork lies an even more crucial element to a self-driven school: a mutual agreement of trust between students, teachers, and guardians in that they are all considered peers and play an integral role in that school’s continuance. Students must be accepted by the faculty as young adults that need to be trained how to become responsible, mature people that can handle the arduous duties that they will confront in the future. This can only happen if students get to experience responsibility and duty first-hand, and there is no better place to look than their very own school.

It is recommended that during the development of the school, a group of students be involved in all of the processes that lead to the administration and function of the school. These students can address and voice concerns regarding student rights, policies, curricular development, and administration. This is crucial to making a successful independent-learning school. Once the school is established, students, faculty, and guardians should convene and draft both a school Constitution and a multi-tiered administration system.

A Democratic school should promote quality amongst all three bodies of the school community (students, faculty, and guardians). The tiers should similarly be divided into three branches that revolve around these three bodies. Traditionally, the branches are called “Student Congress,” “Faculty Board,” and “Parent-Teacher Association,” although these titles are archaic and may not accurately portray the functions of these branches (perhaps more suitable titles would simply be “Student Division,” Faculty Division,” and “Guardian Division,”).

These branches would separately be responsible for discussing issues that they feel affects them or their relationships with people of other communities can make decisions on management within those communities only. To make changes that would affect two ore more groups, the issue should be addressed by each branch separately, then taken to a school council with equal representation from all three groups to determine what course of action to take with the proposed changes. This would ensure that all sides of the issue can be addressed and that the school functions with as little friction as possible.

Again, I must reiterate that just because a law says no to something does not mean that there isn’t another way to do it. For example, legally no student under the age of eighteen may participate in any votes held in a quorum. This obviously significantly impairs the student body’s ability to voice their opinions. There are several ways around this minor problem. For example, high schools could specifically assign or abdicate to students that are of legal age to vote to participate in such meetings, so that the student body can have a real vote. Another alternative is to take note of student votes separate from all other votes, and then a revotecan be taken if the student body’s votes would have altered the outcome, so that guardians and/or teachers would have the opportunity to decide whether or not to “count” the student body’s votes by altering their own. Another suitable alternative would be assigning guardians or community members as the student body’s representative’s representatives, whom would be responsible of declaring the votes chosen by the students they are representing.

Needless to say, running a Democratic school is not only possible, it makes sense. In a country where the voting population is huge and yet political apathy is rampant, it is becoming more crucial than ever to teach students at young ages about the workings of Democracy and how to work cooperatively with others in environments that are receptiveto their needs. Traditional school systems follow different values, and although these values serve well in some cases, their fail to teach students at a young age the true power of Democracy and of representation. Many schools are afraid to open up to such ideas because “today’s youth would simply serve as a destructive body if integrated into a school’s administration.” If this holds any grain of truth, it is a fault that we have brought upon ourselves for not teaching children the duties of responsibility and Democracy.

To conclude this article, starting an independent-learning school is the new wave of the future and shows little signs of stopping. As more and more of these schools are erected, more and more problems will arise as this new and innovative school structure changes our own value system. If we are to teach our children and, in effect, our future how to be responsible and take action in their country, then we must begin when they are young and receptive to knowledge. Bring Democracy to our children today!

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